The threat of a new nationalism (1)
In a previous post, I worried that left populists would prosecute a war against all of neoliberalism’s hegemonic social forms, neglecting the progressive side of neoliberalism and sabotaging the chance for real progress. This may have struck some readers as counterintuitive: those of us pursuing a vision of human equality, solidarity, and true freedom are not used to thinking about neoliberalism as progressive in any way. The rapacity of economic elites freed from all constraints; skyrocketing inequality reshaping work, politics, and culture so that increasingly we are all reconstituted as servants or dependents of the rich; whole populations rendered unsuitable for participation in mainstream life by the economic disintegration of their social ecology; accelerating environmental degradation; intensifying exploitation – these are our associations with neoliberalism.
But neoliberalism is (or was) a social totality: all the dominant forms of the last thirty years were components of neoliberalism as a coherent system. That includes progressive (but not unproblematic) impulses like gender equality, multiculturalism, and skepticism of authority. Because the crisis of neoliberalism has manifested itself primarily in the economic realm, and these forms of consciousness have no clear connection to the economy, they are for the moment secure (what comes after neoliberalism will, however, reshape them – for better or worse). Under much greater immediate threat is one other progressive side of neoliberalism: the erosion of the nation form.
Modern nationalism emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, a distinctly modern form of consciousness that rooted the abstract individual within the constructed (and curiously abstracted) particularity of national identity. The process of reducing the extraordinary diversity of identity within the borders of the posited nation – at the time, most people’s identity was far more parochial, centered on kinship and locality – was long and bloody. During the nineteenth century it was constantly confounded by forces that seemed to stand in tension with it, above all the expansion of capital and of formal imperialism. In the twentieth century the nation form came into its own (proceeding through far more bloodshed), and finally became a universal condition with the consolidation of Fordism following World War II.
Following the liberal period’s spectacular self-immolation through Depression and World War, forms of dissent that had grown within liberalism emerged as the new common sense to structure recovery. Against the ostentatious inequalities of the prewar era, Fordism pursued an egalitarianism of standardized productive subjects. Against the rapacious imperialism that was liberalism’s highest expression, Fordism posited national self-reliance. Against the fragmentation of the competitive market, Fordism erected unified forms of administration centralized within the national market. The fires of war catalyzed these elements into the Fordist-Keynesian and Fordist-Stalinist syntheses, and accumulation proceeded by integrating larger and larger numbers of the previously excluded (both workers and underclass) into a distinctly national realm of politics, culture, and economy.
This phenomenon raised national boundaries higher than ever before and choked off the material connections of capital flows, labor movements, global trade, and imperial administration that had knit the globe together over the previous 150 years. Yet a unitary global order persisted in the realm of consciousness, giving rise to the parallel national structures of a bureaucratic economy and homogenizing mass culture that grew up around the world, spanning the seemingly impermeable boundaries of “Communism”/“capitalism”, aligned/non-aligned, ex-colony/ex-metropole. The great secret of modern nationalism has always been that its form is the same everywhere, no matter what content it is filled with. It is the logic of the commercial brand raised above the mundane realm of retail: desperate to assert a difference that doesn’t really exist.
The characteristic national projects of the postwar world emerged from this system, including the widespread pursuit of import substitution industrialization; the mercantilism of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea; the so-called Communist project of nationalizing the economy and reconstituting the nation as a workhouse; the aggressive pursuit of homogeneous national identities within the former colonized world as well as the general impulse to purify the nation (e.g., in the US, McCarthyism); and the logic of the Cold War itself.
Despite the horrific violence, exploitation, and repression involved in these projects, there was also a certain progressive tendency in the nation form at this time. People who had been excluded and suppressed were now held up as the embodiment of national virtue, and their material standard of living improved dramatically. The persistence of poverty was considered unconscionable and the celebration of inequality fell out of fashion. Communal, racial, and ethnic prejudice was on the defensive before the demand for national integration. It became possible to imagine a universal project (universal, that is, within the bounds of the nation) of material equality for all.
The secret of this progressive side of the nation form was that, though it claimed to place human needs and dignity over economic calculation, it was ultimately subordinate to the needs of capital accumulation within the nation. On the one hand, national capital made possible – you could even say, made necessary – the dramatic increase in equality of the Fordist period. But it also dictated that this would be equality of a particular kind, a homogenizing and standardizing equality that imposed new restrictions on the individuals it claimed to liberate, even as it created new kinds of inequality and exclusion that structured the social conflicts of the later 1950s and early 1960s.
Those who sought to realize the promise of equality – the American civil rights movement, the Nehruvians, the anti-authoritarian current in China, and many others – accomplished much because their efforts were in line with the general movement of national capital. But ultimately they found themselves running up against the structural limitations of the Fordist system. Because they understood their task as an ethical imperative and believed that their enemies were merely motivated by power or prejudice, they could not recognize the real limits they had reached. Their efforts had initially been motivated by the ethics and aesthetics that Fordism enabled. Now, in their frustration they began to turn against Fordism itself, and they became one component of the global crisis of Fordism that began in the late 1960s. All of Fordism’s hegemonic social forms came under attack, including the rigid national boundaries it had constituted, and the new ideas that became the basis for neoliberalism began to emerge.